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One From the Archive: ‘Him & Me’ by Jack and Michael Whitehall ****

‘Him & Me’ by Jack and Michael Whitehall

Turn the television on, and you are almost certain to see something featuring British comedian Jack Whitehall.  He currently stars in the BBC3 series ‘Bad Education’ which he penned himself, Channel 4’s ‘Fresh Meat’ where he plays posh student JP, and in a new chat show-style series called ‘Backchat’, which he appears on with his father, Michael.  In fact, Jack is so popular in the United Kingdom at present that he was voted ‘King of Comedy’ at the 2012 British Comedy Awards.

In Him & Me, Jack and Michael ‘open up the rich and plentiful family archives and share their hilarious memories’.  Throughout, photographs and illustrations, all penned by Jack himself, have been included.  The book has been split into eleven separate parts, beginning with ‘First Memories’ and ending with ‘All Growed Up’.

Him & Me begins with an amusing introduction, in which Jack describes the point at which he told his father that he had been asked to write a book: ‘It is a revelation that is met with utter derision.  Penguin are accused of having let their standards slip and I am told that it is my duty to literature to turn the offer down’.  He explains, ‘I must make it clear that the sole purpose of writing this book was not to show my father that all the money he’d, quote, “wasted on my education to travel up and down the country telling jokes about my penis” was not frittered away and that I could achieve something, but it certainly was a factor’.  Jack then goes on to say, ‘Writing this book has been totes amazeballs (I will be using the odd young-person phrase like this throughout the book because I know how much it annoys my dad)’.

Jack and Michael Whitehall (from the Telegraph)

Different chapters have been penned by both authors, and annotations from the pair occur throughout the book. Him & Me begins with Michael’s memories of Jack’s birth, in which actor Nigel Havers is present, dressed in a dinner jacket.  Michael’s position as a former theatrical agent has led Jack to include a glossary of all of the celebrity names dropped, merely to aid younger readers.

The information included within the book’s pages is largely anecdotal, and incredibly funny.  It is possible to imagine the pair telling these stories to avid listeners, and the chatty tone of the book (at least where Jack’s chapters are concerned, anyway) only adds to this.  From a creepy children’s entertainer – ‘I still worry that if I were to say his name in the mirror three times he might burst through it and choke me to death with a balloon poodle’, says Jack – and Jack’s troublesome antics at Marlborough College, where he was found posing naked for a picture by ‘a small squat Damien Hirst lookalike with a passion for architecture’, to a Cornish camping holiday where, ‘in the middle of a field in Cornwall Michael Whitehall was still dressed in a three-piece linen suit’, to an incident in which Michael tried to kill a rat infestation with an air rifle: ‘I suspect that – even if it did still function – the chances of my father being able to hit a moving target were extremely slim’.

Each chapter concludes with several rather amusing comments written by the other party.  The father and son complement each other’s sense of humour marvellously, and Him & Me is sure to delight every fan of Jack Whitehall – and, indeed, of his rather politically incorrect but incredibly funny father.

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One From the Archive: ‘Into the Whirlwind’ by Eugenia Ginzburg ****

‘Journey Into the Whirlwind’ by Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg

First published in April 2014.

Eugenia Ginzburg’s Into the Whirlwind is a ‘highly detailed first-hand account of one woman’s life and imprisonment in the Soviet Union during the rule of Stalin in the 1930s’.  It is the first of her two volumes of memoirs, which was smuggled out of Russia, and was ‘later sold in many different languages’.  It was not published in Ginzburg’s native Russia until 1990, and is about to be reprinted by Persephone, with a translation by Paul Stevenson and Manya Hararit.

Ginzburg was a history teacher, and belonged to the Communist Party. However, she was expelled from its membership in 1937, and was sent to a gulag in the far east of Russia, where she consequently lived as a prisoner for eighteen years.  In writing her memoirs, she felt that ‘it was her duty to bear witness and trained her extraordinary memory to record everything…  What comes across in reading Into the Whirlwind is not merely the senseless brutality and waste of the regime, but the overwhelming strength of the human spirit’.

Into the Whirlwind has been split into two parts and fifty seven chapters in all.  Ginzburg has opened her account with the murder of early Bolshevik leader Kirov.  She is summoned, along with around forty other workers, to go to factories around Russia and inform them of what has happened.  She is told that ‘the murderer was a communist’, which filled her with a ‘presentiment of terrible misfortune’.  It provides a foreshadowing of awful events to come for Ginzburg.  When a man whom she worked with, Elvov, is arrested by the party, a whirlwind of events begins to spiral for her: ‘I had not denounced Elvov as a purveyor of Trotskyist contraband…  I had not, even once, attacked him at a public meeting’.  She says: ‘1935 was a frightful year for me.  My nerves were at breaking point, and I was obsessed with thoughts of suicide’.  As their investigations into her progressed, Ginzburg writes: ‘The snowball was rolling downhill, growing disastrously and threatening to smother me’.

Throughout, Ginzburg presents herself as such a strong woman, writing that ‘in those days no power on earth could have made me join in the orgy of ‘confessions’ and ‘penitence’ which was just beginning’.  She writes, quite matter-of-factly, that ‘human beings can get used to anything, even the most frightful evils’.  From the very first page, her account is fascinating.  It is astonishing to think that this entire book was memorised, which is such an incredible feat.  Into the Whirlwind is such a brave book to have written, and reliving some of the things within it must have been nothing short of horrific – leaving her family for the last time, for example, after being arrested under the guise of the party wanting to question her about Elvov.  The entirety has such an honest feel to it, and it is certainly another fitting addition to the Persephone list.

Quite an extensive section of notes which explain who some of those affiliated with the party were, as well as political terms and party details, has been included, along with an informative afterword written by Sir Rodric Braithwaite.  Into the Whirlwind is such an important book, and one which should be read by everyone.

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Two Reviews: ‘Romantic Moderns’ and ‘Exit West’

Today, I am reviewing two incredibly different, but nonetheless fantastic, books.  The first is Alexandra HarrisRomantic Moderns, and the second Mohsin Hamid‘s newest effort, Exit West.

Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper by Alexandra Harris ****
9780500289723I had had my eye on Alexandra Harris’ Romantic Moderns for quite a while before picking it up, both as a generally interesting piece of writing, and an aid to my PhD thesis.  Physically, it is a gorgeous tome, with heavy cream paper, and lavish colour illustrations throughout.  In her book, Harris discusses the ‘modern English renaissance’ which occurred during the 1930s and 1940s in quite staggering detail.  She unpicks the period, looking at art, architecture, the nature of possessions, literature, and reclaiming heritage, amongst others.  Whilst a lot of the art did not personally appeal to me, I found the wording and things which Harris touched upon fascinating on the whole.  I particularly enjoyed the chapters on the modernisation of cookery, and weather.  I am also fascinated by the English village, and found the chapter which deals with its preservation far-reaching and insightful.  Harris writes wonderfully; her style is at times academic, but feels readily accessible to a wider audience.  Romantic Moderns does a lot, but it does it all so well.

 

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid ****
9780241290088Exit West very much intrigued me, particularly after very much enjoying Mohsin Hamid’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist when I read it for the first time a couple of weeks beforehand.  His newest effort has been rather hyped, with the seeming majority of my Goodreads and Instagram friends reading it in a kind of frenzy.  Part of me wanted to know what all of the hype was about before reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist; after doing so, I was sure that when I picked it up, I would be in the company of a clever and original storyteller once more.

Contrary to The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which very much presents a realist monologue, Hamid has chosen to use magical realism in Exit West.  In the novel, which centres around the refugee crisis, black doors begin to spring up.  These doors have the power to transport those who walk through them to different places around the globe; many have no choice but to flee through them in order to escape wars and persecution, but others try their luck simply because they do not see what could be worse than their current existence.  Our protagonists, Nadia and Saeed, live in the same city somewhere in the Middle East; it is never explicitly named.  It is alarming, in a way, to think that the constant bombardment which they live under could happen almost anywhere.

The startling beauty of Hamid’s writing makes the more gory and horrid details seem like short, sharp shocks.  His prose pulls one in immediately, and makes the entire novel feel almost timeless.  Exit West is beautifully descriptive, well plotted, and quite original.  The novel is startling, sad, and so very important.

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‘Eating Animals’ by Jonathan Safran Foer ****

I came to Jonathan Safran Foer’s only tome of non-fiction to date, Eating Animals, as an omnivore, and am leaving the same way.  Whilst it has made me think more about where my food comes from, it has not steered me down the road of vegetarianism – which, he states explicitly, was never his intention.  Rather, Safran Foer decided, in part, to write this piece of extended journalism in order to explore whether he and his (now ex-) wife, Nicole Krauss, both vegetarians, should feed their son meat as part of his diet.

‘I see value,’ he writes, ‘in all of us sharing our personal reflections and decisions about eating animals, [and] I didn’t write this book simply to reach a personal conclusion.  Farming is shaped not only by food choice, but by political ones.  Choosing a personal diet is insufficient.  But how far am I willing to push my own decisions and my own views about the best alternative animal agriculture?…  What do I expect from others?  What should we all expect of one another when it comes to the question of eating animals?’9780316127165

From the very beginning, Safran Foer is incredibly reasonable, posing thoughtful questions, and never preaching about his own beliefs.  He understands that a lot of people want to eat meat, but wonders if they would think again if they knew the processes which had occurred in making the animal in question food matter in the first place.  I was aware of quite a few of the things which he talks about at length – for instance, the horrors of trawler fishing – but was not prepared for some of the statistics which he includes.  Some of the figures are truly staggering.

Eating Animals, whatever your dietary choice, is certainly eye-opening.  Some of the facts which Safran Foer includes are truly grotesque.  Did you know, for example, that in 44 US states, it is perfectly legal to eat dog?  Were you aware of just how many species of marine animals are injured and killed in tuna trawler nets?  145, to be exact, ranging from the (great) white shark, barracuda, and Kemps Ridley turtle, to the humpbacked whale, harbor porpoise, and four different types of dolphin.  This was definitely the most shocking part of the book for me; I am horrified to think that anything else is harmed in the pursuit of food, and so regularly too.

Safran Foer’s account is far-reaching; he discusses, amongst other things, the history of animal ethics, the first slaughterhouses (or ‘industrial “processing” plants) which came into being, and the horrific conditions which exist for battery hens and the like.  The book also includes a glossary entitled ‘Words/Meaning’, which I found fascinating, and a copious notes section.  Throughout, he uses philosophers and other authors who have written in the field in order to discuss his points as fully as is possible.  He adds contrasting views for almost every point which he makes.  He has also physically been to visit a lot of the places which he writes about, helping to give his account a really human angle.

Eating Animals has not changed what I eat, but it is going some way to challenge how I eat.  I have always purchased free range eggs and ensure that the meat which I buy is organic wherever possible; I will also never touch fish which has not been line caught.  Safran Foer has taught me that I am a ‘selective omnivore’; I eat meat when I know where it comes from, or know that it has been responsibly and sustainably sourced.  I am far more savvy in purchasing my own groceries than I am when eating out and buying takeaways, however; I am going to make a concerted effort to ask about how my meat, or fish, was produced, and whether sustainable methods were used.

Eating Animals is incredibly well written, which will surprise nobody familiar with Safran Foer’s work.  Ultimately, as a piece of extended journalism, it is thoughtful and thought-provoking, meticulously researched, and never judgemental.  Safran Foer is an extremely careful author, never foisting his own beliefs onto his readers, whom he understands range from strict vegans to meat-eaters.  He could easily have used Eating Animals to justify a vegetarian, or even vegan, diet, but does not; in this manner, I cannot think of a better author who could have tackled such a sensitive subject.  Eating Animals is an insightful and important book, which I feel that everyone should read.

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One From the Archive: ‘In Cold Blood’ by Truman Capote *****

It will come as no surprise, I am sure, to say that I have wanted to read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences for such a long time, and my longing to do so was even higher after the Capote Readathon which Lizzi and I created last summer.  In Cold Blood is the fifth book upon my Classics Club list, and a fitting final read for my American Literature month. A lot of the information within this stunning piece of non-fiction was included in ‘Capote’, a film which I very much enjoyed.  The Spectator describes the book as ‘The American dream turning into the American nightmare…  a remarkable book’, and its blurb heralds it ‘a seminal work of modern prose, a remarkable synthesis of journalistic skill and powerfully evocative narrative’.

Published in 1966 and dedicated to Jack Dunphy and Harper Lee with Capote’s ‘love and gratitude’, In Cold Blood is ‘controversial and compelling’.  It ‘reconstructs the murder in 1959 of a Kansas farmer, his wife and children.  Truman Capote’s comprehensive study of the killings and subsequent investigation explores the circumstances surrounding this terrible crime, as well as the effects which it had on those involved.  At the centre of his study are the amoral young killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickok, who, vividly drawn by Capote, are shown to be reprehensible, yet entirely and frighteningly human’.  All of the material which Capote says is ‘not derived from my own observation’ is taken from official records and interviews ‘conducted over a considerable period of time’.9780141182575

Capote masterfully sets the scene and tone of the whole from the outset: ‘The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there”.  Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clean air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West.  The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang…  and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes’.  Holcomb itself is described as ‘an aimless congregation of buildings divided in the centre by the main-line tracks of the Santa Fe Railroad…  After rain, or when snowfalls thaw, the streets, unnamed, unshaded, unpaved, turn from the thickest dust into the driest mud’.

As in his fiction, his depiction and control of every single scene is gripping and vivid.  This is particularly true when he describes the event which was to shake the entire community: ‘But then, in the earliest hours of the morning in November, a Sunday morning, certain foreign sounds impinged on the normal nightly Holcomb noises – on the keening hysteria of coyotes, the dry scrape of scuttling tumbleweed, the racing, receding wail of locomotive whistles.  At the time, not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them – four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.  But afterwards the townspeople, theretofore sufficiently unfearful of each other to seldom trouble to lock their doors, found fantasy recreating them over and again – those sombre explosions that stimulated fires of mistrust in the glare of which many old neighbours viewed each other strangely, and as strangers’.

The Clutter family – Herbert and Bonnie, and the youngest of their four children, sixteen-year-old Nancy and fourteen-year-old Kenyon – are the victims, all of whom were tied up and shot at close range in their home in 1959.  Descended from German immigrants who moved to Kansas in 1880, they were a prominent and well-respected family in the area, and all were profoundly shocked at their murder: ‘Feeling wouldn’t run half so high if this had happened to anyone except the Clutters.  Anyone less admired.  Prosperous.  Secure.  But that family represented everything people hereabouts really value and respect, and that such a thing could happen to them – well, it’s like being told there is no God.  It makes life seem pointless.  I don’t think people are so much frightened as they are deeply depressed’.  The peripheral characters which Capote makes use of, both in terms of testimony and as part of his beautifully prosaic telling of the murders, are wonderfully and strikingly described.  Local postmistress Myrtle Clare, for example, is ‘a gaunt trouser-wearing, woollen-shirted, cowboy-booted, ginger-coloured, gingery-tempered woman of unrevealed age… but promptly revealed opinions, most of which are announced in a voice of rooster-crow altitude and penetration’.

The rendering of the Clutters’ story is incredibly powerful and resonant, and has been so well sculpted.  Capote has been incredibly clever in that he follows both the victims and the perpetrators, explaining their pasts and the motives of the killers.  He is almost compassionate towards Perry Smith, and this gives an interesting and memorable slant to the whole.  In Cold Blood is distinctly Capote’s work; it rings with such understanding of those involved, without exception.  Real depth has been given to the whole, and it feels as though the reader is watching events unfold when they happen, rather from the position of retrospect.  In Cold Blood is a compelling and important piece of non-fiction, and it has made its way straight onto my favourites list.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Outrun’ by Amy Liptrot ****

Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun was my choice for the June edition of the Chai and Sheep Book Club.  I first found out about it after seeing a wonderful review, complete with sublime photographs of Orkney, on dovegreyreader’s blog.  Olivia Laing, whose own work I am incidentally desperate to get to, calls it ‘astonishingly beautiful… a luminous, life-affirming book’.

The Outrun is a memoir of Amy Liptrot’s struggles with alcohol when she moves, first to Edinburgh as a student, and then to London: ‘At eighteen I couldn’t wait to leave…  I wanted comfort, glamour and to be at the centre of things’.  In The Outrun, Liptrot writes that essentially, relocating back to her home island rescues her.  She ‘is drawn back to the Outrun on the sheep farm where she grew up.  Approaching the land that was once home, memories of her childhood merge with the recent events that have set her on this journey’.  She groups herself together with others she grew up with: ‘It’s a push and pull factor to many young people from the islands.  We ended up back here again and again, washed back, like the inevitable tide’.
9781782115472

Geographically, Orkney is the collective name for a group of seventy islands, many of them uninhabited, to the north of Scotland.  The whole area is ‘sea-scarred and wind-battered’.  As one would expect, The Outrun is filled with fascinating details regarding the history of the islands; these have been wonderfully interspersed with Liptrot’s own memories.  She details how paramount the weather is on such an exposed island group: ‘Sometimes the light picks out in fine detail the hills of Hoy, another island to the south beyond the headland, and on other days they disappear completely in the haar’.  The Outrun itself is wonderfully evoked: ‘The Outrun is tucked away behind a low hill and beside the coast, and in the right spot you can’t see any houses or be seen from the road.  Dad told me that when he was high, in a manic phase, he had slept out here.’

The prologue details Liptrot’s birth, and her father’s simultaneous relapse: ‘As I arrive into this island world, my father is taken outside of it.  My birth, three weeks early, has brought on a manic episode’.  As well as speaking about her present, Liptrot is, understandably, focused upon the past: ‘The rumblings of mental illness under my life were amplified by the presence of my mother’s extreme religion and by the landscape I was born into, the continual, perceptible crashing of the sea at the edges’.  This memoir is an incredibly honest one; I felt as though Liptrot had a no-holds-barred approach to her past.  She writes with such clarity, which really shows the hopelessness of her previous situation: ‘The alcohol I’d been pouring into myself for years was like the repeated action of the waves on the cliffs and it was beginning to cause physical damage.  Something was crumbling deep within my nervous system and shook my body in powerful pulses to the extent that I was frozen and drooling, until they eased off enough for me to pour another drink or rejoin the party’.

The disparities between city and island life have been so well evoked: ‘Another Sunday muffled and hungover in bed, makeup oily in my eyes, doors slamming somewhere, while up north the waves still curled dark and endless, and the aurora lit up the sky’.  Liptrot weaves this in with the panic mode which her drinking sends her into.  Alcohol becomes a constant in her life rather quickly, and she begins to suffer from memory lapses and mood swings.  She wakes with mysterious bruises all over her body; she is the victim of a crime.  In London, she describes some rather scary episodes: ‘I was dumbfounded and unable to make decisions about where to go, whom to see or what opinion to hold, filling the void with alcohol and anxiety’.  The London period is a gritty one for Liptrot, fraught with drugs, dependency and danger.

Aesthetically, this book is stunning, from its beautiful cover to its lovely illustrated maps.  A glossary has been included too, which is incredibly beneficial for non-Orcadian speakers such as myself; it details spellbinding words and terms, such as ‘clapshot’ (mixed neeps and tatties), ‘haar’ (sea fog), and ‘grimlins’ (a midsummer night’s sky).  Liptrot’s story has been so wonderfully – and often harrowingly – evoked that it will linger with the reader long after the final page has been read.  The Outrun is a very honest and very well written memoir, which has made me want to travel to Orkney as soon as I possibly can – perhaps an inevitable consequence of reading it.

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Reading the World: ‘Manderley Forever: A Biography of Daphne du Maurier’ by Tatiana de Rosnay ****

‘As a bilingual bestselling novelist with a mixed Franco-British bloodline and a host of eminent forebears, Tatiana de Rosnay is the perfect candidate to write a biography of Daphne du Maurier. As a thirteen-year-old, de Rosnay read and reread Rebecca, becoming a lifelong devotee of Du Maurie’s fiction. Now de Rosnay pays homage to the writer who influenced her so deeply, following Du Maurier from a shy seven-year-old to a rebellious sixteen-year-old, a twenty- something newlywed, and finally, a cantankerous old woman. With a rhythm and intimacy to its prose characteristic of all de Rosnay’s works, Manderley Forever is a vividly compelling portrait and celebration of an intriguing, hugely popular and (in her time) critically underrated writer.’

9781250099136I love du Maurier, and she is easily one of my favourite authors.  I have also really enjoyed de Rosnay’s work to date, and when I found out about the French publication of Manderley Forever, I willed it to be translated into English as soon as was possible.

I love the way in which Manderley Forever is written.  I found the first section particularly incredibly spellbinding.  There was almost a magical quality to its prose, as well as the story it relayed.  Whilst the rest of the book was undoubtedly fascinating, I do feel as though it unfortunately lost a little of its sparkle.  Perhaps this is because I knew relatively little about Daphne as a child, but was well versed in her life and writing from adolescence onward.  The childhood section was refreshing, I suppose, in that it held some surprises for me.

There is an undoubted admiration on de Rosnay’s behalf, and the whole has been written and researched lovingly.  I really liked the way in which de Rosnay drew a parallel story alongside du Maurier’s biography, by going on a personal ‘pilgrimage’ to all of the places in which du Maurier lived and visited.  De Rosnay is thorough, and presents her subject in such detail.

The section which included du Maurier’s obituaries was a really nice touch, particularly with regard to the legacy which she left behind.  It also drew a very fitting conclusion to the biography.  The translation, too, was flawless.  One can certainly tell that de Rosnay is first and foremost a novelist.  I can only hope that she writes more such fantastic portraits as this in future.

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